How to be a good confessor

Editorial, April 2011

God became man in Jesus Christ to save us from our sins. To accomplish that until his Second Coming, he established his Church with the power of the keys and animated her with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The new life of grace that he merited for us by his passion and death on the cross is communicated to us through the seven sacraments, which are administered by bishops, the successors of the Apostles, and by the priests who assist the bishops in their tasks of teaching, sanctifying and pastoring the people of God.

One of the important duties of priests is to administer the sacrament of penance—to hear confessions. Thus, one of the titles of a Catholic priest is confessor, that is, one who hears confessions. A major part of the training of seminarians to become priests is to learn moral theology and sacramental theology so that they can become good confessors.

It is a well-known fact that Catholics now do not go to confession regularly as most did before the Second Vatican Council. I am sure there are many reasons for this, among which I might mention: faulty religious instruction, increased secularization of our culture along with a loss of the sense of sin, preaching that emphasizes the mercy and love of God, but rarely mentions his majesty and justice.

Parishes need holy priests and good confessors. It is not easy to become a wise and compassionate confessor. Some of the requirements of a good confessor are: 1) he must be a man of prayer who is close to Jesus Christ and realizes that it is Jesus who forgives sins through him as his instrument for the salvation and sanctification of faithful Catholics; 2) he must know moral theology; 3) he must have a basic knowledge of psychology, especially the difference between men and women; 4) he must be compassionate like Jesus himself and be endowed with good common sense. Those are the basic requirements of a good confessor. The model for confessors is St. Jean Vianney who spent a large part of his adult life hearing confessions and giving spiritual advice to penitents who came from distant places in France to confess their sins to the saintly pastor in the small town of Ars.

Recently I read a short book on this matter entitled Guidebook for Confessors by Fr. Michael E. Giesler (, 2010). Fr. Giesler has published articles in HPR and is an experienced confessor. Obviously, the book is intended for priests and was written to help priests become good confessors. The unstated assumption of the author seems to be that seminary training in moral theology is not sufficient to turn out good confessors. Young priests need experience in hearing confessions and they need information and guidance from older priests. The point of thisGuidebook is to give priests the knowledge they need in order to improve their skills as confessors.

The author briefly gives the history of the sacrament and reminds the reader that we are all called to holiness, which means love of God and avoidance of all sin. Some of the areas on which he offers advice are gossip and sins of the tongue, justice and the obligation to make restitution for those who have deprived others of a good name or material possessions, chastity (both personal and marital), reverence for life at all of its stages, and correcting penitents who err in matters of faith and morals.

A major theme of Fr. Giesler is the importance of making an integral or complete confession. This means that the penitent must confess all certain mortal sins committed since the last valid confession. He offers questions that the confessor should put to the penitent to make sure the confession is complete or integral. Integrity of confession is a requirement for validity. Thus, if a penitent does not tell the confessor all of his known mortal sins, the confession is invalid and there is no forgiveness of sins.

As the author says, this is delicate matter and the priest must be kind and merciful, like Christ, and not ask such questions unless they are absolutely necessary for the integrity of the confession. But here it is important to remember that integrity of confession is primarily the responsibility of the penitent, not of the confessor.

All priests should strive to be good confessors. This little book of 139 pages ($9.95) offers many helpful suggestions on the art of being a good confessor.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.